When Orville Wright died, Neil Armstrong was already 17 years old.
When Orville Wright died, Neil Armstrong was already 17 years old.
In 1895, stung by charges that boxing is a brutal sport, Joseph Donovan patented the training rig on the left. Each boxer wears a harness and headgear with electrical contacts at each of the classic vulnerable points: the heart, the pit of the stomach, the chin, the nose, etc. When a sparring partner hits one of these points, a bell sounds and points are scored.
Donovan argued that this makes the scoring more objective and the sport more civilized. “It renders one of the healthiest and most fascinating athletic exercises absolutely safe,” he wrote, “doing away completely with roughing, bloodletting, brutality, knockdowns, and knockouts, and reducing boxing and the manly art of self-defense to a science, in which rapidity of arm and leg work, endurance, and quick conception are the only factors.”
In the same spirit, in 1956 Willie Roberson patented a glove with a built-in counter (right): “Each time a blow above a predetermined force is struck, such blow will be recorded, whereby the total number of effective blows struck during a boxing match will be readily available to the referee and judges judging the boxing match.” If we combine the two then we can even confirm the counts!
A replacement for the Turing test has been proposed. The original test, in which a computer program tries to fool a human judge into thinking it’s human during a five-minute text-only conversation, has been criticized because the central task of devising a false identity is not part of intelligence, and because some conversations may require relatively little intelligent reasoning.
The new test would be based on so-called Winograd schemas, devised by Stanford computer scientist Terry Winograd in 1972. Here’s the classic example:
The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they [feared/advocated] violence.
If the word feared is used, to whom does they refer, the councilmen or the demonstrators? What if we change feared to advocated? You know the answers to these questions because you have a practical understanding of anxious councilmen. Computers find the task more difficult because it requires not only natural language processing and commonsense reasoning but a working knowledge of the real world.
“Our WS [Winograd schemas] challenge does not allow a subject to hide behind a smokescreen of verbal tricks, playfulness, or canned responses,” wrote University of Toronto computer scientist Hector Levesque in proposing the contest in 2014. “Assuming a subject is willing to take a WS test at all, much will be learned quite unambiguously about the subject in a few minutes.”
In July 2014 Nuance Communications announced that it will sponsor an annual Winograd Schema Challenge, with a prize of $25,000 for the computer that best matches human performance. The first competition will be held at the 2016 International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, July 9-15 in New York City.
Here’s another possibility: Two Dartmouth professors have proposed a Turing Test in Creative Arts, in which “we ask if machines are capable of generating sonnets, short stories, or dance music that is indistinguishable from human-generated works, though perhaps not yet so advanced as Shakespeare, O. Henry or Daft Punk.” The results of that competition will be announced May 18 at Dartmouth’s Digital Arts Exposition.
(Thanks, Kristján and Sharon.)
Bombers in World War I were typically manned by two crew members, a pilot and an observer. The pilot operated the forward machine gun and the observer the rear one, so they depended on one another for their survival. In addition, the two men would share the same hut or tent, eat their meals together, and often spend all their free time together. This closeness produced “some remarkable and amusing results,” writes Hubert Griffith in R.A.F. Occasions (1941):
There were pilots who took the precaution of teaching their observers to fly, with the primitive dual-control fitted to the R.E.8 of those days — and at least one couple who used to take over the controls almost indiscriminately from one another: there was the story that went round the mess, of Creaghan (the pilot) arriving down out of the air one day and accusing his observer of having made a bad landing, and of Vigers, the observer, in turn accusing Creaghan of having made a bad landing. It turned out on investigation that each of them had thought the other to be in control of the aircraft; that because of this neither of them, in fact, had been in control at all; and that, in the absence of any guiding authority, the machine had made a quite fairly creditable landing on her own.
Griffith writes, “It was, I suppose, the most personal relationship that ever existed.”
In April 1861, Thaddeus Lowe set out from Cincinnati in the balloon Enterprise, hoping to reach the eastern seaboard. After wandering 900 miles he came down in Unionville, S.C., where he received a rather cold welcome:
Many of them thought Mr. Lowe was an inhabitant of some ethereal or infernal region, who had floated to the earth to do damage to its inhabitants. He thought he would pacify them by showing that he could live on the substantial things of earth just as they did; so he took from the basket a variety of cakes, crackers, bread and butter, cold meats, etc. He also passed out several India-rubber bottles of water which had frozen solid, and to let them realize how cold it was in the upper region of the atmosphere where he had been, he cut one of them open and took out a large mold of ice, shaped exactly like the bottle. This was the worst thing he could have done, for immediately one man asked how any one but a devil could put so large a piece of ice through so small a place as the nozzle. At last an old dissipated man suggested that one who was capable of doing such things was too dangerous to run loose and moved that he be ‘shot on the spot where he had dropped from the skies.’
He won his freedom only by appealing to the officers of South Carolina College, who knew Smithsonian secretary (and ballooning enthusiast) Joseph Henry.
On the way back to Cincinnati, Lowe stopped at a meeting of the Tennessee legislature. He became the first to notify Lincoln of that state’s decision to secede.
(William Jones Rhees, “Reminiscences of Ballooning in the Civil War,” Chautauquan, June 1898.)
In 1864 a photographer employed by Mathew Brady used a four-lens camera to record activity at a Union Army wharf along Potomac Creek in Virginia. The four images were taken in quick succession, so staggering them produces a crude time lapse of the events they record:
In effect they present a four-frame film, perhaps the closest we’ll come to a contemporary movie of life during the Civil War. Here are a few more, all taken in Virginia in 1864:
Union cavalry crossing a pontoon bridge over the James River:
Traffic in front of the Marshall House in Alexandria:
Union soldiers working on a bridge over the Pamunkey River near White House Landing:
There’s more information at the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park blog.
In 1957, the U.S. Patent Office wanted to design a computer that could track down earlier references to an idea submitted by an inventor. This is difficult, because patents are described in ordinary English, which uses many ambiguous and imprecise terms. The word glass, for instance, refers to a material, but also to any number of things made of that material, and even to objects that have nothing to do with glass, such as plastic eyeglasses and drinking glasses.
To solve this problem, engineer-lawyer Simon M. Newman planned a synthetic language called Ruly English that gave one and only one meaning to each word. In ordinary English the preposition through has at least 13 meanings; Newman proposed replacing each of them with a new Ruly term with a single meaning. The Ruly word howby, for example, means “mode of proximate cause.” It might replace the unruly terms by(take by force) or with (to kill with kindness) or through (to cure through surgery), but it always has the same basic sense.
Newman had to coin other terms to take account of differing points of view. A watch spring and a bridge girder are both flexible to some degree, but using the word flexible to describe both would leave a computer at a loss as to how they compare. Newman coined the Ruly word resilrig to cover the whole scale, from extreme flexibility to extreme rigidity, adding prefixes such as sli (slightly) and sub (substantially). So in Ruly English a bridge girder would be sliresilrig and a watch spring subresilrig. A computer that knew these terms would not be confused into thinking that a thin bridge girder was more flexible than a rigid watch spring.
“Humans are not expected to read or speak Ruly English,” noted Time in 1958. “To them, unruly English will always be more ruly.”
(Newman describes his plan briefly here. I don’t know how far he got.)
This is clever — in 1893 Texas inventor Martin Everhart patented a clock-winding mechanism that’s driven by rainwater. The water fills a tank in the attic and then drops through a pipe into a pail in the clock. The pail is balanced with a counterweight, so it falls and rises continuously, accepting a new measure of water at the top and discharging it at the bottom. This motion winds the clock.
I guess the whole thing would stop eventually in a drought, but the clock can be wound by hand if necessary.
Making a bed is a tiresome chore, observed inventor Richard Nowels in 1959, because so much time is spent in walking and bending: “It is necessary to pull the covers from both sides of the bed, from the bottom end of the bed, and possibly also from the top end of the bed.”
A better solution, he decided, is to hide an electric motor under the bed and connect it by cords to the edges of the bedclothes. Now when you get out of bed you can turn on the motor and draw the sheets and blankets immediately into their proper positions.
It’s handy in the middle of the night, too: “Kicked-out covers may be automatically re-tucked into place by the bed occupant merely by flipping a switch.”
adj. pertaining to flying
n. a burnt smell
Newsreel men recently witnessed an unscheduled drama as flames ended the attempt of Constantinos Vlachos, co-inventor of one of the strangest of flying craft, to win government aid for its development. He had planned an ascent from the lawn of the Congressional Library at Washington, D.C., to demonstrate his ‘triphibian,’ which he claimed could navigate in the air, on land, or in the water. Hardly had he started the motor when fire enveloped the machine. Spectators dashed to his aid and dragged him, severely burned, from the blazing wreck.
— Popular Science, January 1936